After the first day of fall in Las Vegas, a hiker and her dog had to be rescued due to life-threatening heat exposure. The low temperature set a record high for lows this time of year, and I got sunburned walking around the block. So I Googled “apocalyptic global warming!!!!!”—a modern-day shaking my fist at the sky, which I just realized equates Google with a deity, which I’m uncomfortable with in the same way I’m uncomfortable with sunburns after the Autumnal Equinox. Everything’s cattywampus.
I know it’s a desert. I’ve lived here an eternity, but not so long that I’ve erased memories of Virginia autumns, or a single Maine autumn, or the general notion of what autumn is supposed to feel like: crisp, harvesty, ruminative, full of scarves. I’m sure it will arrive, later, but I’m impatient and sweaty so I went in search of it.
My journey began at the center of seasonal change in Las Vegas, the Bellagio Conservatory. If the conservatory is decked out in faux fall foliage, it is fall. Period.
To my delight, pumpkins and leaves abounded—beautiful, as all of the seasons of Bellagio are. Some of the pumpkins were real, I think. Enormous glass leaves, brilliant orange, hung from the ceiling on cords, suspended as if in a wind. An 18-foot scarecrow and a 4-foot smiling squirrel and tree trunks with moving eyes and mouths made festive backdrops for tourist photos. Big-band music filled the temperature-controlled air, and natural light—bright summer sunlight—beamed through the glass ceiling. I did my best to jam art-of-fall into my need for real fall. Still, the majority of onlookers were wearing shorts, and two women walking through my autumn were wearing bikinis under sheer cover-ups with flip-flops, reeking of suntan lotion. They posed with the giant scarecrow, who, born in a mental landscape of turtlenecks, looked befuddled, but not unhappy. I had to move on.
While driving home, I spotted another key sign of Las Vegas fall. Landscapers in the master-planned community of Summerlin were out in force on the roadsides ripping out summer flowers and replacing them with autumn flowers. See? Fall. Sure, it lacks the elegance of a tree gently letting go of leaves that have gradually turned from green to yellow to orange or red through an exquisite natural response to shorter days and less sunlight; leaves that then sail through a chilly wind to the cold ground, where they’ll be raked together for rosy-cheeked, laughing children to play in, while the trees, gray now and solemn, hold out for the winter fast.
But there it was, fall in Las Vegas: Sweaty, thirsty landscapers wearing sun hats with neck flaps to protect them from the 102-degree sun taking a break in the shade of a stucco wall.
Of all the (other) things that symbolize fall—the sound of football, earlier sunsets, the joy of layering outerwear—leaves are foremost. On a shelf at home, I have a massive maple leaf, now fragile and brown, that I saved from a trip to somewhere tree-filled last fall. Its intricate system of veins, which transport fluids to the tree during photosynthesis, make me think of our own veins carrying blood from the heart. I caught myself imagining that the tree, too, must have a heart, and then considering that hearts, while scientifically busy muscling out blood, have long been our figurative seat of emotion, of love, of longing. Something about fall seems situated in the heart.
I try to put my finger on it while looking at last year’s leaf. Among fall’s many metaphors—change, wisdom, harvest—the one I like most is the notion of home. Fall feels like curling up there.
Nevada’s state song, “Home Means Nevada,” which I hear every October on Nevada Day, doesn’t mention Las Vegas. It’s lovely, as state songs go, and pays homage to the Truckee River and the Kit Carson Trail. But there’s endless discussion among Las Vegans, so many of whom are transplants, about when to embrace the city as home, when to identify as a Las Vegan, and after how many years your opinion will finally stand equal with that of natives.
I’m reflecting on this when I head to Gilcrease Orchard, in a tank top, shorts and sunscreen, to see the pumpkin patch and ride a hay bale. There’s a new parking lot for this long-standing farm now surrounded by suburbs. They’ve got more cash registers under the shade canopy. Some of the pumpkins are still green, but many are bright orange, fat and seated in wheelbarrows with smiling kids whose parents push them toward the exit, toward streets lined with absurd fall-colored flowers or hot dust and cactus; no matter, they’re heading home. If fall isn’t here yet, it will be, because we make it so. And that’s the wonder and beauty of our home, Las Vegas.